Should Science Majors Pay Less for College Than Art Majors?

Philosophy lovers, prepare to be outraged. 

Down in Florida, a task force commissioned by Governor Rick Scott is putting the finishing touches on a proposal that would allow the state's public universities to start charging undergraduates different tuition rates depending on their major. Students would get discounts for studying topics thought to be in high demand among Florida employers. Those would likely include science, technology, engineering, and math (aka, the STEM fields), among others. 

But Art History? Gender Studies? Classics? Sorry, but the fates are cruel. Unless a university could show that local companies were clamoring to hire humanities students, those undergrads would have to pay more for their diploma. 

Charging tuition by major is one of several recommendations the task force will submit to lawmakers as part of a broad reform package for Florida's university system. The hope appears to be that by keeping certain degrees cheaper than others, the state can lure students into fields where it needs more talent. It's an interesting idea in the abstract, but if it ever makes it into law, the results could be messy. 

Before we dive into the pros and cons of the proposal, a few details: The task force's plan calls on the state to help colleges freeze tuition for three years on "high-skill, high-wage, high-demand" majors picked out by the legislature, while letting prices rise for other areas of study. It's not clear yet what degrees would fall under that "high-demand" umbrella. But Florida's state schools already hand out about 37 percent of their diplomas in subjects the government has deemed "strategic areas of emphasis," which include the STEM disciplines, some education specialities, health fields, emergency and security services, and "globalization." Presumably, many of those same majors would qualify for the cheaper tuition rates.

In an interview, task force chair Dale Brill explained that other, less intuitively career-oriented majors might also be covered by the tuition freeze. For example, Brill said, Florida State could reasonably lobby on behalf of its creative writing and film programs, which have had success vaulting students into the entertainment industry.

For some, it might seem inherently unfair to send dance majors deeper into debt just to keep tuition low for engineers, who are already poised to earn more once they graduate. Brill sees it otherwise. First, he said, tax dollars are scarce, and the public deserves the best possible return from its investment in education. That means spending more generously on the students who are most likely to help grow Florida's economy once they graduate. Second, he argued that too few young people consider their career prospects carefully when picking a major. "The tuition differential will increase the probability that there will be some introspection about careers and livelihoods," he said. 

Ensuring that taxpayers get the biggest bang for their buck is an admirable goal. So is encouraging students to think ahead about their careers. The question is whether staggering tuition among majors will actually accomplish either.

To believe that it will, you have to accept two notions: First, you need to take it on faith that the government is capable of divining which majors are going to be the most marketable year after year. Second, you need to believe that there are a large number of talented undergrads who could hack it in these subjects, but are choosing easier majors instead. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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